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Feds say Chevron pipeline must remain shut off

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 8 2010 9:18 p.m. MST

Ralph Becker

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The federal regulatory agency overseeing pipeline safety issued a "corrective action order" against Chevron on Wednesday, preventing the pipeline from resuming service until the company crafts a plan that meets safety regulations.

In addition, Chevron will have to draw up and execute short- and long-term plans that specifically address ways to prevent a similar leak to that of the Dec. 1 incident near Red Butte Gardens.

The order comes on the same day Gov. Gary Herbert said he fully supports Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker's efforts to keep Chevron's pipeline idle until all safety concerns have been answered.

"For too many Utahns, this second spill brings back memories of the first situation, and it is unacceptable," said his spokeswoman, Angie Welling.

"The governor has been clear that all concerns must be fully addressed before the pipeline reopens."

Welling added that immediately after discovery of the second spill, Herbert directed representatives of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and its Division of Water Quality to the site to monitor activities and update him with reports.

Water sampling results released by the state on Tuesday show that although some trace elements of petroleum product were found in the creek in the first round of testing, officials believe it was result of compounds becoming airborne and then being deposited. Subsequent sampling showed no presence of oil.

Those developments came on the heels of a Monday meeting in Washington, D.C., between Becker and officials of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Becker asked for an independent review of the pipeline by a pipeline safety expert who is expected to make an analysis of the structure's integrity apart from Chevron's own inspection or any federal agency analysis.

Becker said that plan will require an exhaustive review of the line, including a thorough evaluation of the condition of the 60-year-old pipe and whether its route through sensitive watershed areas is appropriate.

"We want to communicate and arrive at an approach that will give our community the safety assurances we need," Becker said. "To that end, we will be seeking expert, independent consultation to combine with the recommendations of our local prevention work group."

Becker said the agency agreed to act in an advisory capacity as the city develops a prevention plan. Development of a long-term plan for the line will enlist the efforts of the prevention work group — formed after the June spill of some 33,000 gallons of crude oil into Red Butte Creek — and a city-contracted pipeline safety expert.

Becker, too, plans to reiterate his request more formally that the federal agency decline to deem the pipeline operational until all assurances are in place that it can operate safely.

Calling it a "danger too serious to ignore," Becker said the prospect of another leak is unacceptable and asked in a letter to the agency's administrator, Cynthia Quarterman, that the pipeline remain unfilled.

That letter was sent Dec. 2, a day after a faulty valve caused an estimated 500 barrels of oil to leak within a catchment vault not far from the Red Butte Gardens Amphitheater. About 250 barrels of the oil seeped onto a grassy area above the vault, about 500 feet away from the site of a June 12 spill involving 800 barrels of oil.

In the June 12 incident, investigators believe an electrical arc from a nearby power pole blew a hole in the pipeline about the size of a quarter. The oil leak went undetected for 10 hours, sending much of the product into nearby Red Butte Creek and into the pond at Liberty Park.

Chevron remains in the midst of remediation plan to restore the creek to its pre-spill condition and work continues at the pond, which is drained each winter.

Chevron was fined $423,600 in connection with that spill, with federal investigators noting the company's leak detection system was inadequate. Although the company routinely performs aerial surveys to check the integrity of the pipeline, the agency said the company needs to more aggressively tackle the overgrowth of vegetation in critical areas along the pipeline, which feeds Chevron's Beck Street refinery.

Cleanup crews have removed more than 95 percent of the oil in this latest spill and most than of the contaminated soil. Smith said the city and Chevron are also working with University of Utah officials to take care of some damaged trees.

The valve that leaked has been secured by the U.S. Department of Transportation and will be sent to a metallurgical forensics laboratory for analysis, Chevron spokesman Mickey Driver said.

"We know that we've lost the trust of Mayor Becker and many people in the Salt Lake area," Driver said. "Our job right now is to regain that trust."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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